Sunday, September 15, 2013

This Is Asia. That's Europe Over There.

On the road again. What a place is Istanbul--history
everywhere you look.
I am in Istanbul. That is correct. Istanbul, Turkey. I have come to teach English, with my teaching duties scheduled to begin tomorrow. Today is Sunday. The mosques are closed, but I think just about everything else is open. For everyone and everything in Istanbul except the mosques, Sunday is just another work day. I have today off, but my two roommates, also teachers, are both giving classes as I sit writing this and waiting for a hard-boiled egg on the kitchen stove.

I flew from Los Angeles on Sunday, September 8th, arriving the next night local time. L.A. to Istanbul is 11 hours if you're flying nonstop, as I did two years ago when I flew from L.A. to Tbilisi, Georgia on Turkish Airlines. I assumed I would be flying Turkish Airlines again, since Istanbul was my final destination this time and not a stopping-off spot.  But I didn't make my flight reservation until the last possible moment, and by then Aeroflot was cheaper than Turkish Air, so I went through Moscow. Kind of too bad, not only because Turkish Airlines would have been direct, but also (not to knock Aeroflot's in-flight meals, they're okay) Turkish Airlines has the best airplane food I've ever experienced this side of Air France.

There is always at least one crisis involved whenever I travel anywhere, and this trip was no exception. I'd been using my bank debit card all summer instead of cash, and continued to do so on this overseas journey -- I arrived in Istanbul with only my Mission Federal Credit Union Mastercard in my wallet. No cash. At passport control they told me I had to go to the visa office for a $20 tourist visa to get me out of the airport. When I tried to use my MFCU debit card to pay for the visa, it was rejected. They sent me to the transit desk, where a Turkish airport guy took me upstairs to the HSBC bank to try their ATM. No dice; the ATM rejected my card.

I was in a panic. Stuck in Istanbul, with no money and no way of getting any? I sat, paced, fumed while the Turks tried to figure out what to do with me. There was some rumbling about sending me back to Moscow. "How would I pay for that?" I countered.

Just as I was about to ask someone to call the American consulate, I remembered something. Last year, when I flew to China and tried to get some cash in Beijing, the moment Mission Federal's central computer saw a transaction being attempted on my card in a foreign country, it shut my account down. The computer assumed that my card had been stolen.

One of the Turkish guys at the transit desk let me borrow his cellphone (mine was dead) and I called my credit union. Sure enough, that was what had happened. MCFU's computer had seen a transaction coming from a foreign country and had shut down my account. We got it straightened out over the phone, but it took me two hours to get out of the airport. Happily, the young man whom my new employers had sent to meet me had not quite yet given up on me: he was still standing beyond customs, holding up a card with my name on it (misspelled, but close enough.) By midnight I had been escorted to the apartment I am now sharing with two other teachers. After 17 hours on the road, I collapsed right into bed, having landed "on my feet" one more terrifying time.

Istanbul has history woven into its bones, and for obvious reasons.

Istanbul divides Europe from Asia, standing as it does athwart the Bosporus, a narrow body of water that connects the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea. There has been a city here since forever. In ancient times it was called Byzantium. In A.D. 330 the Romans came in and named the city Constantinople, after the Emperor Constantine. The descendants of the Romans ran the show here until 1453, when the Ottoman Turks took over. The city was renamed Istanbul. The Ottoman Turks ran the show until after World War I, then a certain Kemal Mustafa Attaturk (Turkey's version of George Washington, father of his country) got rid of them and founded the modern Turkish republic in 1923.

With the Bosporus as a neighborhood landmark, Istanbul is divided into two halves: "Asia" and "Europe." I, and the language center for which I will be teaching, are located on the "Asia" side of the water. But the "Europe" side is only about forty minutes away by bus. That's not because the distance is so great, but because the traffic is so horrible. In the photo above you will see the suspension bridge that connects Europe with Asia, and you can traverse the water that way by bus or car, but they tell me that the ferry is a much more pleasant way to travel from one continent to the other.

We spent last week in training at New York Studio, which used to be Berlitz and is one of many language-teaching centers here. This is where we'll be teaching, when we aren't on-site at any number of businesses around the city. The school uses the same methodology as Berlitz, and we had three days to learn it. There were five of us in my training group, myself, three young women from the UK, and another lady, Turkish, who already teaches in Istanbul but is coming to work for NY Studio and had to learn its methods. Our instructor, a woman named Demet, took us through our paces. It was a lot of information to absorb in three days. I took a lot of notes but my head is still swimming with it. My first class is tomorrow evening. I will be teaching business English to a group of advanced students. I haven't taught adults since I was in training for my TEFL certificate more than ten years ago, and I'm more than a little nervous about it. All the teaching I've done for the past two years has been with children.

Istanbul is a city of 20 million people. The Turks are mostly very friendly; when I go into a store to make a purchase, I usually get a nice smile and a "thank you." Same at the outdoor market they have on Fridays between our apartment and the school. Some of us stopped there last Friday after class and bought some fruits and vegetables. The vendors want you to buy their stuff of course, so they hand you free samples. One guy handed me a couple of figs. Figs aren't my favorite fruit, but I ate them to be polite, and found that these figs, anyway, were delicious. We're all on tight budgets of course, and Kirsten, one of my fellow trainees, said she intends to do most of her food shopping at the outdoor market because everything is very cheap there, and some of the stores are quite expensive. She got a big bag of tomatoes, potatoes and onions for four Turkish lira, about two bucks.

Yesterday was Saturday. We went to the center in the morning to observe other teachers conducting their classes. Then in the afternoon, Kirsten and I, along with Lizzie, another new teacher, took the bus across the Bosporus to Taksim, Istanbul's old city center over on the European side of the water. It was hot all week, but it's been cooler this weekend, although it's supposed to get hot again tomorrow. Taksim was jampacked with tourists and shoppers. There is a pedestrian street right in the middle of the old city, and people were literally crammed in there elbow-to-elbow, milling around, shopping. Some sort of political demonstration was cooking up, apparently. I'm not sure what it was about, but the police were taking no chances -- cops in riot gear outnumbered the demonstrators at least 100 to one. There were platoons of police all over the place, wearing helmets and body armor and carrying riot shields, rifles and machine guns. But there was no trouble that I heard of and of course the cops ignored us. And just about everyone except the demonstrators -- a man I asked on the street said they represented the Kurdish political party -- ignored the cops, as many of them as there were. We shopped, dropped in at NY Studios' Taksim center, met with another friend, shopped some more, ate and drank, sweated and got jostled a lot. All in a day's tourism.

Finally, about 8 p.m., we piled into a Dolmus, (the kind of seven-passenger van/taxi that the Russians call a marshutka) and made the trip back over the bridge and across the water to the tip of Asia, where we live. The trip back took more than an hour. I simply cannot describe Istanbul's traffic. Just think "constipation" and put it in terms of headlights, taillights, brake lights, lurch-and-stop, peristaltic lane changes and lots of honking. It was after nine p.m. by the time I got back to my apartment. The van dropped us near our school and then I had to hike down the hill toward my new home. As I struck out on foot, my feet aching and my backpack whacking my spine, behind me one of the local mosques began droning out the call to evening prayers.

You can set your watch by the mosques in this part of the world. In fact I find that I don't need an alarm clock here. Quite promptly, around 5:40 a.m. each morning in mid-September, I'm greeted by the early-morning call to prayers from a mosque around the corner from our apartment, on a boulevard which it shares with everything else you might expect: grocery stores, restaurants, shoe outlets, women's clothing shops, plumbing supply places and Domino's pizza. Also Papa John's. About the same time the mosque sends me my wake-up call, I also hear from the seagulls. We're a short walk from the Sea of Marmara here, although I'm told the beach is too dirty for swimming. The Black Sea is about forty-five minutes in the other direction. Doesn't matter whether we can swim or not; as a native Californian, the sound of seagulls is the sound of home to me. Just as the smell of the sea was the smell of home to the Greeks in Xenophon's March of the Ten Thousand.

Which happened somewhere in this part of the world, as I recall. Seagulls and history. Never mind that I can't read the billboards. If you have a sense of your own cultural heritage, there's a homey feel to this place.